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Photo by Alex Voulgaris on Unsplash

I Got Paid to Drink and Hang Out With Men in Karaoke Rooms

As a doumi I drifted somewhere between a geisha and an escort, but I couldn’t handle the clients testing my boundaries.

On any given night of the week in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, you’ll find scores of scantily clad young women rushing into and out of the private rooms in Korean karaoke bars. They are “domi/doumi girls,” women that you can rent by the hour to entertain you in your karaoke room.

I had just arrived in Los Angeles, my ego thoroughly bruised from having had to give up my life in the Bay Area after nearly a decade there. I loathed the idea of having to come back to Los Angeles but realized that this would be the best thing for me for a variety of personal reasons.

My ego would continue to be bruised as I struggled in my job search once I was settled. This was in the months before COVID-19 was even a thing so I didn’t have the scapegoat of blaming my lack of job offers on a pandemic economy. As it turns out, finding a job in Los Angeles (or one worth doing anyway) is just difficult in general. Who would’ve thought?

I scrolled through Craigslist day after day looking for bartending or serving jobs, when I noticed a slew of listings that offered a proposition that screamed “sketchy!” Though worded differently, they all expressed the same offer: if you were an attractive and fun loving gal of drinking age, you could get paid $40/hour plus tips to party and drink with wealthy clientele in Koreatown as a karaoke hostess. You could choose your own hours and apparently it was a completely safe job. All you had to do was send two recent body photos and a face photo to the email address listed.

For some people this might scream “scam” immediately, with images of a basement dwelling predator fishing for sexy photos of women via Craigslist. But being Korean, I knew some of these listings were legitimate. I knew there was a thriving nightlife industry in Koreatown and I had heard about karaoke hostesses before. I knew them as “doumi girls.” Doumi girls are a distinctly, though not uniquely, Korean concept. They are akin to the geishas of Japan.

The concept of paying young beautiful women for their company is not new to the world. I’m sure some variation of this happens everywhere.

I put the listings out of my mind because it just didn’t seem like a respectable job. It just didn’t feel like the type of job I’d feel comfortable telling people about and I knew if my parents ever found out I had tried it, they would have a conniption. In my mother’s mind, doumi girls were akin to prostitutes, and I would soon find out that her determination was neither completely accurate nor completely inaccurate.

Weeks flew by. I had a few interviews under my belt but no job offers yet. I was pretty demoralized. My mind started to wander to the karaoke hostess listings I had seen on Craigslist. I started making all these justifications in my mind: “it’s just temporary,” “you need the money,” “you’re young once, might as well capitalize on your youth while you can.”

I started scouring the internet for any blog posts or videos made by doumi girls chronicling their experiences so I would know exactly what I might be getting myself into. I found a few, but not as many as I would hope, and they were all pretty vague on the details. Most of them brushed off the experience as a fun thing they had tried once or twice as broke college students, while some went in depth on the personal toll they paid doing the job which ultimately led them to stop.

Feeling sufficiently prepared, I chose the Craigslist listing that seemed the most legitimate, created an alternate email address with a fake name, and sent my photos into the abyss. Then I waited.

I was emailed back pretty quickly by someone who seemed friendly enough. They asked to switch over to text message, which I did. They told me I seemed right for the job and that they would like to meet in person for an interview. We scheduled an interview at a coffee shop in Koreatown for later on in the week.

The day of the interview came. I did my make up and put on a reasonably conservative outfit. I got to the tea shop a few minutes early and my nerves started eating away at me. I had no idea what to expect. I just wanted to get this over with so I could go get a drink somewhere, my usual solution to anxious jitters. I felt like other patrons of the coffee shop were staring at me, though they probably weren’t. Did they see lots of other young women here before? Did they know what I was here for?

A minivan pulled into the lot and parked quickly. A young man who seemed to be in a daze came out of the car and hurried toward the tea shop (come to find out, he was sleep deprived from driving around doumi girls all night). We connected eyes and he called me by the fake name I had used. We exchanged pleasantries and he offered to buy me a cup of coffee but I told him I was going to a bar for a drink after so there was no need. We sat down and he pulled out his iPad and showed me a flurry of charts: rules, dress codes, procedures, etc. He asked if I understood it all, and I absentmindedly nodded still trying to process what was actually happening. Probably sensing my confusion, he assured me that I would be texted all these materials.

I realized this “interview” was more so a meet-and-greet so we could both determine the other party was legitimate. He checked my ID to make sure I was actually of drinking age (he didn’t seem to care that I had used a fake name), and he helped me join the work group chat where practically all work matters were discussed and arranged. The topic of me being Korean came up, and when I told him I spoke both English and Korean, he seemed pleased. He said it would be easier for me to get booked if this was the case as this would open me up to clientele who preferred doumis who spoke Korean. Then he went more in depth about how the job actually worked:

All the girls working on any given night met at a specified location. We would be picked up by a driver who would shuttle us to karaoke bar after karaoke bar until we were booked by a client. The client would book us for two hours to start with the option to extend their time with us after the two hours ends. It was our responsibility to keep track of the time and text the driver after each hour whether we were staying in a room or had to be picked up to try to get booked by other clients. We were to collect $60 per hour from the client, of which the driver would take a $20 cut per hour you were paid. Any and all tips were ours to pocket. And if we ever had an issue with a client we would simply text the driver who would come to the room and handle any disputes.

Absolutely no drug use was permitted but drinking was encouraged and, if I’m being completely honest, practically mandatory. Absolutely no sexual relations with clients was permitted. We were not to meet with clients outside of work.

We finished up our conversation with any questions I had. I thanked him for his time, told him he should expect me at work that weekend, found the nearest bar, and ordered two tequilas while I talked to my best friend on the phone about the strange experience I had just had.

Saturday night arrived faster than I expected and my nerves started again. Though I had heard the explanation of how the job was supposed to work, I still had a lot of questions on my mind. What exactly happened in these karaoke rooms once you were booked? What if no one booked you at all the whole night? I don’t even sing karaoke!

As the sun set, I started getting ready for work. I put on a full face of make up, a dress, and heels, looking more like I was getting ready to go dancing at a club rather than sitting in karaoke rooms and drinking. Though I had the option to drive, I fully expected to be blitzed by the end of the night so I Ubered to the meet up spot.

Once I was there, I texted the driver. He waved to me from a car in the parking lot. I climbed into the car and saw another girl in the passenger seat next to the driver. We sat making small talk for another twenty minutes or so as more and more girls were dropped off and got into the car. Some of them had been doing this job for years while some, including myself, were newcomers who had never done this before. Some of the girls offered tips and gave us the run down as we approached our first karaoke bar of the night. “Just follow us and do what we do” they told me, and that was enough to quell the rest of my nerves.

The driver pulled up near the door and we piled out. To me it seemed like a comical sight — a bunch of young women dressed to the nines climbing out of a vehicle like clowns spilling out of a clown car. Our driver called out numbers to us as we entered the karaoke bar (come to find out, they were room numbers). The valets standing in front of the karaoke bar gave us a knowing glance and didn’t seem to think much of it. This was a totally normal sight for the karaoke bars of Koreatown.

We entered the karaoke bar and the more experienced girls took the lead, rushing towards the room numbers that were given to us. We entered the first room which had three men waiting inside. We lined up in front of them and waited to see if they chose anyone. Some of the girls, sensing their hesitation, started making small talk, trying to charm them into choosing.

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Artwork Displaying Japanese Courtesans from Wikimedia Commons

I won’t lie, standing in that line waiting to be chosen definitely made me feel like some strange platonic version of a prostitute. I knew I wouldn’t be having sex with anyone, but just the mere act of being in a lineup of women presenting ourselves for the picking reflected too many scenes I had seen in movies and TV shows — scenes of sex workers in parlors being gazed upon by men who had walked in to patronize the brothel.

One of the girls was chosen, and the rest of us filed out, trying the next room. Once we got through all the rooms that requested doumi girls, those of us who weren’t picked went back outside where the driver was waiting for us. We piled into the car, and he drove us to the next establishment.

This is pretty much how the rest of the night went on. I was having a woefully difficult time getting booked and I was getting pretty tired of climbing out of the car and shuffling into endless karaoke rooms. With each new establishment we walked into, the karaoke employees would give us a tired look as they told us which rooms we could try and which rooms not to bother with if we weren’t Korean. Some places had streamlined the process by putting up white boards displaying the room numbers that were requesting doumis and what kind.

I learned pretty quickly that you have to be pretty thick-skinned to do this job. You face what feels like rejection many times throughout any given night. In some of the rooms that requested us, the men had already rented doumis. Some of the rooms didn’t acknowledge our presence at all — not a glance, not a greeting, not even a wave to shoo us away. We were commodities, we didn’t need to be acknowledged like human beings.

There was little rhyme or reason to the girls who got booked versus the girls who didn’t, though most girls got booked at least once a night. It didn’t matter if you were the prettiest, the curviest, the thinnest, the boldest, etc. it only mattered what any given man was looking for on any given night and whether you got to him early enough before another doumi did. Some of the girls who had been doing this for years would tell me of nights they didn’t get booked at all and ended up losing money on a night after accounting for the cost of make up and transportation.

The doumis came in all shapes, races, and sizes and they worked for a variety of agencies. While being able to speak Korean opened up opportunities for me to book clients that specifically requested Korean girls, there were just as many men looking for other persuasions. In fact, a lot of the requests for doumi girls would specify the races of women they were looking for and the requests were certainly diverse.

This was a buyer’s market, not a seller’s. There were so many doumis, especially on the weekends, so the men could afford to be picky. In one of the karaoke bars we were in, I saw perhaps twenty to thirty girls rushing in and out of rooms trying to be booked by a handful of potential clientele while more doumis poured in through the front doors. And mind you, those were the numbers at just one establishment. There were scads more doumis scattered throughout Koreatown making the rounds that night and I realized I was a small fish in a big pond.

As luck would have it, my first client was probably my most terrible. I hadn’t been booked all night, making me wonder if it was time to call it quits. I lingered in the doorway of the umpteenth karaoke bar I had tried, waiting for the driver to pick me up along with a few of the other girls who likewise had no luck. An employee of the establishment approached me asking me if I wanted a drink. I eagerly accepted wanting to take the edge off of an exhausting night.

When I approached the counter expecting to be poured a shot, he directed me instead to his friend who was the one who wanted to get me a drink. His friend was shy and had apparently been watching me since I had arrived. Though he didn’t say in clear terms that he wanted to book me, there was an implicit agreement that me walking back with him to his karaoke room meant I was getting booked. We were both adults and he knew I was a doumi — and doumis didn’t give away their time for free.

When I got back to his room, I was surprised to find we were alone. He hadn’t come with any friends, which I found odd. He said he just didn’t have many friends, that he mostly came to see his friend who was an employee there. He poured me shots of Hennessy while we made small talk and he inched closer and closer to me. I acted flirtatiously while I hovered in my indecision as to how much of my true self I would reveal to him. He wanted to know if I went to college and where. He wanted to know what else I did for a living. He wanted to know what part of Los Angeles I lived in. I was vague and he seemed likewise vague when I pressed him for details about his life.

After an hour went by I told him that I had to tell my driver if I was staying or not, shattering the illusion of a young woman who was genuinely interested in him. He told me to stay and I was eager to do so, because if I left I would have had to make the rounds again, walking into dozens more karaoke rooms until I was (or wasn’t) booked again. But as the next hour ticked by, he became more and more crude. He started making sexually explicit comments. At one point, he unzipped his pants, and tried to stick my hands down his fly. He started taking the liberty of touching me while trying to make me answer whether he was my type or not. I became increasingly uncomfortable and started looking at the clock, counting down the minutes until the hour was up and I could leave.

In theory, I could leave anytime, but part of me didn’t want to deal with the conflict of arguing over what he owed me if I were to end the hour early. Part of me didn’t want to go through the process of being booked again because it was possible I could end up with a worse client or not getting booked at all. A thought flashed through my mind, that perhaps this is what I was really being paid so much for, to put up with blatant sexual harassment that bordered on assault at times.

So I grit my teeth, smiled, and deflected his advances until we reached an awkward détente. When the hour was up, he paid me, tipped me handsomely, and I left with a sigh of relief. It was pretty late into the night at this point and the driver asked me if I wanted to try and get booked again. The agency operated until 7 am apparently — I could keep trying until the sun rose. I told him no, paid him his cut for the night, and he drove me back to the meet up spot so I could take an Uber home.

Sitting in silence at home, I looked back on the night and wondered what I had done wrong. Surely the other girls who have done this for years wouldn’t keep doing this if this is what they put up with regularly. I blamed myself for not establishing my boundaries firmly enough. I questioned whether I was tough enough or abrasive enough to set firm boundaries with men who were eager to test them. I questioned just how entitled to these boundaries I was when I realized that this is exactly what the men were paying for.

I recalled reading about the experience of one doumi girl who found that she encountered these troublesome clients more often than not the longer she did the job. She let more gropes go by unchastised because it would mean a better tip at the end of the night. And she tried to accept it with a smile on her face, because becoming bitter and aloof would mean she would be traded for another doumi who would have no qualms about that kind of treatment for cold hard cash.

I felt comforted that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt about what had happened.

I worked as a doumi on and off again for the next few months thereafter. I found bartending jobs downtown which lessened my need for the doumi gig. Of the handful of clients I had during my time as a doumi, most of them were not positive experiences. I continued to feel like I was sacrificing my beliefs and morals for money. It became harder and harder to pretend to be someone I was not and feigning interest in people I was not actually interested in.

The men were crass, criticizing me for not looking a certain way, not smelling a certain way, not drinking enough to their liking. In their minds, I was an object they were paying to rent after all, so why shouldn’t they be critical? They treated me like a substandard product they were thinking about returning for a refund. It was the purest example of objectification that I’ve personally experienced.

Though I have little tolerance for the actual job itself, I have immense respect for the women who do it. This job is not for the faint of heart and any woman that has worked this job regularly has definitely had to hold her own in dealing with the seedy underbelly of Koreatown’s nightlife.

Much like the clients, the doumis came from all walks of life. Many of them had other jobs and used doumi-ing to supplement their income in an exorbitantly expensive city. Some of them considered doumi-ing their only job.

And surprising though it may be, most of us had good and playful relationships with our drivers who were pretty much our employers. When I told my friend about them, she seemed horrified, likening them to pimps, but it didn’t seem like that to me. I can’t speak for all the doumi bosses in Los Angeles, but mine were always respectful and encouraging. They invited us to their birthday parties and seemed to care about us as actual people. They treated doumi-ing as a choice for us to make, and they were used to the high turnover of girls who would try it and decide it wasn’t for them. No one was ever pressured to stay though our bosses did hustle every night to get a good turnout of doumis that could work. This was their own livelihood as well, of course. They had incentives to hire and retain girls who would be booked often and for long periods of time so they could make their cut.

I have no desire whatsoever to go back to being a doumi girl, but in many ways, it feels like a failed venture. While I know that it was never a realistic career option, part of me feels like I failed to live up to a sort of fantasy I had in my mind: a rough and tumble street smart chick who could emotionally detach herself from her hustle. It sounds silly, but it’s true.

Come to find out, no amount of money could help me overcome my sensitivity to being disrespected and having my boundaries constantly tested by men I barely knew.

I had the privilege of choosing not to be a doumi anymore, but to this day I wonder if there are women who don’t have that privilege. I’ve read about the LAPD cracking down on doumi rings and I’ve heard whispers of rumors that some women are trafficked only to end up working as doumis. It seems that for every free spirited gal in her twenties working as a doumi to live a more lavish lifestyle, there’s probably another gal potentially being sex trafficked and that just doesn’t sit right with me.

I stopped working as a doumi early enough to not walk away with too much trauma but I did walk away with a renewed sense of nihilism and cynicism. All I have to look back on those days now are my memories and the green dress I wore as a doumi that still holds the faint stink of cigarettes that permeated the karaoke rooms I once wandered. It’s a chapter of my life I’m content to leave behind me.

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I enjoy writing about society and culture, especially of the internet variety.

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